It’s official: the first baby boomer, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, is on Social Security. There’s going to be a long line behind her–USA Today reports that an estimated three-fourths of boomers will start getting Social Security checks before reaching their full retirement age in 2012. Given the disincentives for working while taking early benefits, you’re likely to see more and more sixty-somethings trying to figure out when (or whether) to quit their jobs. Here are some ways to help clients, both individuals and couples, figure out how to balance work and play in their Third Age.
Q: A longtime client of mine, a successful business owner, is being pressured by his wife and family to sell the company and retire. However, he’s afraid he’d be “bored to death,” and has seen other CEOs retire and become non-persons among their peers in the business community. Considering how deeply he’s wrapped up in his work, should I encourage him to detach himself from his business? If so, how?
A: Ever since the days of Wat the Tyler, John the Smith, and Ethel the Brewster (and probably earlier), people have been defining themselves by their work. Many men, and increasing numbers of women, derive enormous satisfaction and the lion’s share of their identity from their career accomplishments. Stepping back from this can be truly scary, unless other passions and commitments are able to take its place.
I think your best chance of helping your client is to sit down with him and explore what he feels and thinks about working and not working. Does he enjoy running his business as much as ever, or is he finding himself more tired, bored, and risk-averse? If he is still passionate about his work, what is it about the work that satisfies him?
Then I’d determine how he feels about “down time” with friends and family so that you can help him enjoy it more. Would he be interested in becoming a Junior Achievement or Boy Scout leader, or coaching new entrepreneurs as a volunteer with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE)? You might suggest a book I highly recommend: Changing Course: Navigating Life after 50, by William A. Sadler and James H. Krefft (Center for Third Age Leadership Press, 2008).
If you give your client the space he needs to probe his preferences and his fears, you’ll be able to decide whether to support his family’s view fully, partially, or not at all. I think you will then feel more comfortable meeting with him and his wife to determine a course of action that works for each of them, at least for the short term.
Q: A 55-year-old client of mine constantly complains about his grueling work, long commute, and abrasive boss. When I suggest that he look for something more satisfying, he says he can’t imagine quitting his job. What’s worse, he spends so much on himself to make up for his “suffering” at work that he’s saved hardly anything for retirement. I’m concerned about his future. How can I get through to him?
A: Your best hope is to find out where these patterns came from and see if you can counteract them. I’d tell him you’re puzzled by his attachment to a job he resents so much. Was he brought up to believe that work should be endured, not enjoyed? Did he see examples around him of people who slaved away at drudge work, living only for payday? Are there other reasons why he feels he needs to keep working at an unpleasant job for an impossible boss?
Once you better understand your client’s motivations, you may be able to open a dialogue about the importance of preparing for the future. It’s possible that he has resisted saving more because he thinks retirement means freedom from work–a concept he can’t buy into. Encourage him to view it instead as the freedom to work at something he would really enjoy and find fulfilling.
Q: A client couple of mine are planning to retire in a few years, but they have totally different dreams. He wants to run a charter fishing boat in the Florida Keys, and she wants to manage a B&B in New England. How can I bring them together?
A: In conflict negotiation, there are often major differences between what people say they want and what they actually need deep down.
As you discuss this couple’s “wants,” keep digging to see if you can discover what lies beneath. If they insist on holding fast to their different pictures of the future, you might suggest that they take a couple of “vocation vacations” to try out these fantasies in real life. For instance, they could look for a bed & breakfast establishment in New England where the hosts are willing to answer their questions, let them help run the B&B, and maybe even review their business plan (if they have one). Similarly, they could charter a fishing boat in the Keys and learn whether running this kind of boat is as rewarding as it seems. (Vocationvacations.com is a good resource for trial retirements like these.)
Q: My new client’s husband, who is 10 years older than she is, is retired and spends most of his days playing golf. Although this woman enjoys her work, she resents his lifestyle, which she calls “totally frivolous.” She asked me to explore how their financial situation would be affected if she works less, but I think her real motive for cutting back their income would be to induce her husband to go out and find a part-time job. How should I handle this?
A: Before you run the numbers as she requested, I think there may be some underlying issues here around work and play.
“Worker bees” often come from families where not working is a sign of weakness or sloth. If your client was raised to believe that having fun was self-indulgent or even sinful, the resentment she’s directing at her husband could be lightened by the awareness that the intensity of her feelings is older than her marriage. You might also ask her if he worked hard before retiring. If so, realizing this may help her accept his need to kick back and relax as a way of recovering from those years of labor.
Additionally, I’d look at whether the couple has been spending enough quality time together. Part of her resentment may come from feeling ignored or neglected, like the proverbial golf widow.
Last, find out if she has any real interest in working less. It could be that she too would like to retire, but judges herself too harshly to consider this option. Ask how she would spend her free time if she cuts back on her work. She might look for something to do that she enjoys and considers worthwhile. I predict that is she gives herself permission to create a life that works better for her, she will stop resenting her spouse for living his life of leisure.
If your client becomes less judgmental toward her husband, she may be able to ask him honestly whether he has any desire to do volunteer work or somehow give back to society, perhaps by mentoring or volunteering with her. This could bridge the gap enough to let her accept his retirement choices.
Q: Although my client is financially ready to retire, her pension and investments won’t stretch to cover the living expenses of her 88-year-old mother, whom she has supported for years. When I suggested that it was time for her younger siblings to share the burden of their mom’s upkeep, my client made excuses for them: they have mortgages, kids in college, and so on. How would you approach this?
A: This is a tough one, because family patterns are often so deeply entrenched, but anything you can suggest to open up the system would help.
To begin, ask your client more about her family history. She may be stuck in a family role that they all feel familiar with: the caretaker or designated rescuer of the others.
Take some time to help her dream about what her life would be like if she weren’t shouldering this burden by herself. Does she resent having to put these dreams on hold in order to take care of her mom?
If you whet her appetite to fulfill some of her deeply felt desires, she may be more open to approaching her siblings about sharing the responsibility for their mother’s care. It’s very possible that they have simply shrugged off her polite hints about the burden it has been on her. If so, it may have more impact if she invites them to get together and brainstorm about the issue in your office.
You might ask a family therapist or counselor to co-facilitate this discussion if feelings are likely to run high. Alternatively, you could bow out and allow the sibs to meet with a counseling professional alone if there’s any concern about your being biased in your client’s favor. One way or the other, I venture there is a solution that will allow your client’s siblings to assume more of the burden.
When clients come to you with dilemmas and conflicts about working or quitting work, try to find out the fears, hopes, dreams, and burdens that make these issues emotionally charged for them. Help them visualize the kind of life they think they would enjoy. As this vision grows clearer, and the limiting patterns that keep them from allowing themselves pleasure begin to diminish, you can help them look at the financial realities of detaching fully or partially from work. Ultimately, you should be able to help them generate a number of life balance scenarios, so they can find one that will give them true fulfillment and vitality.
Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at www.investmentadvisor.com. She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at firstname.lastname@example.org.